Just Charlie


I walked out of the farmhouse at midnight tonight, on my way to check the horses and thinking about how I had nothing to write. But then, an owl soulfully hooted from the barren winter trees as the starry sky illuminated the night, and I felt as though I might burst with words about what that moment felt like.

The pony whinnied shrilly—rudely disturbing the silence and threatening to wake the neighbors to let them know I was an hour late with his hay. The truth is, I’m almost always an hour late with his hay because I tend to lose track of time when it’s this late—when the world is quiet and anything is possible.

Regardless, ponies are pretty quick to let you (and the rest of the town) know when you’ve disappointed them. They may be short in stature, but they have very high standards.

Gabriel excitedly bounded off ahead of me, as he always does, for he is always sure that tonight will be the night he will finally catch a rabbit. There are several of them that linger along the shoreline of the meadows and the trees, night after night, waiting for us (I’m sure of it), if only to watch Gabriel, in his exuberant confidence—as though he has never failed—to chase the entire lot of them down from 40 yards away, only to wind up quickly and wildly disappointed in failing to snag one for the 984th time. In a row.

I checked on the blanketed horses and threw them some hay. I noticed Charlie—the Indian horse who needs no blanket—was beginning to shed (a sure sign of spring), and I wasn’t sure I could sleep knowing he could use the first of many spring groomings.

I grabbed the shedding blade, caked with dust from the winter, and made my way back to him.

“This is Charlie.”

That’s what I said to my very good friends and their cute little son today, when they came to talk about upcoming projects and we toured the horses while we did so. But now, looking at Charlie and thinking of all the springs we’ve had together, I wondered if maybe I’d been disrespectful.

Unlike the pony, Charlie is pretty forgiving, but I got that pang of ache you get between your eyes—the one that threatens to bring tears—and that corresponding heave that knots your chest.

“This isn’t ‘just’ Charlie,” I thought, because we have names or introductions for the meaningful people we introduce to other people. “Hey, this is my mom/the woman that raised me” or “I’d like you to meet my better half,” or “this is my best/lifelong/childhood friend.”

And I’m like, “Hey, this is just Charlie” even though he’s literally saved my life over fences countless times and I’ve known him longer than just about anyone besides my parents and my sister.

“This is only the horse that knew me before I knew myself.”

Maybe that’s a bit heavy for a Sunday night, and I’m the first to admit Charlie was probably too interested in getting treats to worry about the way in which he was being introduced, but I think about these things, and it bothered me that considering THIS particular horse, I’d been pretty nonchalant. Plus, I read somewhere that how we respect animals and nature is a good indication of how we respect each other as people.

I tried to put that thought out of my mind, as I began to groom Charlie, starting with his rump, which looked like it needed the most work, and then moving towards his neck. The curves of his back and the cowlicks of his coat are so familiar, I don’t even notice them anymore, which is perhaps why I take him for granted. Of all the horse and riding books and theories and videos and lectures I’ve come across, I wondered if they should all just be summed up with “know the backs of your horses like the backs of your hands. Or better, if you can.”

I hope one day I can say, “I do” to that.

As every horse person knows, there’s something about a barn that warps time, and before I knew it, the other horses were real quite, almost through with their hay, and although I was still grooming, I was somehow on the opposite side of Charlie from where I had started.

I felt a little guilty for drifting off on him, my mind swirling with trifling matters and life decisions—thoughts on spring cleaning projects, grocery lists, and Kenya, emails I need to return, books I want to read, what the next year will bring, and how I’ll know if any decision I ever make is the right one. But lately, if I stop and think for too long, I just get mad about something that’s virtually in my backyard.

Because a week ago, the church I grew up in justified the revoking of millions of dollars away from people (mostly children) on the other side of the world under World Vision because of a small internal agency change in hiring policy, which would allow World Vision to hire anyone who wanted to help change the world for the better. And by anyone, I mean it would not matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is—World Vision would only hire you based on your desire and ability to contribute to the world. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. Because the last time I checked, whoever you love and whoever is sleeping in your bed really bears no weight on your capacity to do good in the world.

I’d be in trouble if it worked any other way because it’s a dog that I love and a dog that sleeps in my bed. And he lives to chase rabbits every night, all to no avail.

But World Vision was forced to re-change its policy after 2 days, and fire and not hire any employee with an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity solely BASED on alternative sexual orientation and/or gender identity because churches threatened to pull too much money, and World Vision would no longer be able to support the millions of people who depend on the agency and also have nothing to do with its hiring policies.

The churches argue that leaving millions of needy people in the lurch is justified because homosexuality is a sin. But even under that pretense, how can the church choose which sinners are allowed to help the world and which are not? Because let’s face it, we’re all sinners.

But I’m not just angry at church. I’m angry because those who do fight for equal rights (specifically in terms of employment and health insurance) haven’t been talking much or fighting on this and it makes me think they’ve just accepted that America is indeed as backwards on this as it once was about race and segregation and even women’s voting rights. I don’t think anyone is giving up, but they sure are a world more patient than I am, if they can just stop talking about it for now.

I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that this world has a lot of horrific problems, and alternative sexual orientation and gender identity is not one of them.

So this really makes my blood boil, and I suddenly wake up, and here is Charlie, just standing next to me, on the opposite side from where I started, and his head is low, and he’s calm and quiet, even though I’m a world away wondering if there is any hope for humanity. All while grooming him on autopilot.

But really, that’s how it’s always been with this horse, from the beginning, which is why I’d felt guilty for casually writing him off earlier in the day. Because back when I was little and I couldn’t see over his back or reach his mane, I’d stand on a bucket to brush his head, and I’d desperately wonder why the boy I like in school wouldn’t talk to me or I’d go over and over a terrible riding lesson with missed distances and late changes, or worse, both, or I’d think about the terrible things I’d overhear people say about each other and I’d wonder if they were true.

Those problems once seemed as big as these now, and regardless of what’s important and what’s not, Charlie confronts them all in the same dignified, soothing way: He just listens.

This is what horses do best. They listen. And you don’t even have to talk, which is good, because sometimes I can’t. Horses understand silence better than anything. They feel if you let yourself be felt. If you just let yourself BE, which I eventually discovered is terribly easy around horses and horrifically difficult around people (and also cats, but that’s another story).

Well, I kissed Charlie on the nose to say “thank you,” and after promising never to introduce him as “just” Charlie again, I flipped the barn lights off and closed the doors.

That pony was still at the gate, and although he finally had his hay, he made it a point to glare at me just to say he had not yet forgotten what I’d done to him for the 31st time this month. I realized I still had the grooming blade in my hand, so I thought maybe, as dark as it was from inside his pasture, I could make it up to him.

As snow white ponies tend to do, Napoleon had covered himself thoroughly in mud, so even though I couldn’t see the mud (and therefore, him, either), I knew that once his white coat began to glisten in the darkness—as only whiteness does—I would know I’d made leeway. That pony stood proud and steadfast, as if he’d been patiently waiting for me all night, and without really thinking or trying, the shedding blade went gliding over him while we both took great big gulps of the lingering wintery air and looked up into the stars as they sparkled and shimmered, and it seemed as if those shimmering stars produced an inaudible music of infiniteness, quiet, and the angels flying far overhead. Because something that looks so pretty must sound that way, too.

Our reverie was occasionally interrupted by the zebra, who circled us impatiently and snorted to let us know it, for zebras move with effortless stealth, and he otherwise would have gone undetected. Here, before the zebra, was an extremely painful display of domestication, not just by the pony, but by Elvis, too, who was standing nearby and patiently waiting his turn for a grooming. For Sura, this behavior was virtually insufferable for a zebra of his caliber and wildness, and he desperately tried to look like he was up to exciting and interesting things among the mud pools of the pasture, in an attempt to lure his herd back to him. But no one budged a hoof, although Napoleon licked his lips as we both listened with amusement to the sounds annoyed zebras make.

When I could finally see Napoleon’s white form in front of me, along with great torrents of loose hair at our feet, I moved to Elvis. Sura attempted to intervene, and tried to push Elvis away from me. I went to head him off, but Elvis was already on it and gave Sura a warning nip, his teeth clacking together for emphasis and in preview of what would be to come should the zebra try to press him again. I had stopped grooming briefly while I watched this, and no sooner has Elvis swung away from nipping at the zebra did he swing the other direction, towards me, to gently wrap his lips around the edges of my fingers, which I couldn’t actually even see myself. He nudged my elbow holding the shedding blade, as if to say, “Carry on.”

So I went back to work. Every once in awhile, he’d paw the ground or stretch out his neck to say that, indeed, right “there” was the right spot.

Beyond the fence, I heard a rustle off in the brush and from it, I felt bright friendly eyes emerge and bed down along the fence, which was the quiet, trained, and respectful distance in which to join our company. Besides perked ears, none of the horses appeared particularly alarmed, and I called out to Gabriel, telling him he was a “good boy” and that I hoped he had stayed out of the thawing swamp.

But when I finished Elvis’ grooming and excused myself to bed, I was surprised to find Gabriel lying on the dirt floor of the barn, waiting outside the stalls, right where I’d left him long before. I wondered if the shy companion outside the fence had actually been the lone gray wolf that came the summer I got Gabriel, which was two years ago. She rarely made an appearance last year, but the occasional and exceptionally large dead rabbit always laid fully intact and perfectly centered upon my doorstep—as if to say I needn’t worry about the horses (or maybe to try to show Gabriel it could be done)—let me know she was still around, though why she had suddenly turned cautious last year, I didn’t know.

But I was glad to assume she fared the winter, and seeing as how the rabbits are as plentiful as ever, she won’t go hungry this summer.

I walked back to the farmhouse with Gabriel at my side.

The owl hooted again and the stars shifted, with Orion sinking to the west and the tip of the summer triangle pushing up like an arrow against the northeasterly horizon.

Once I was inside, I peeled off my heavy layers, as I’ve seemingly had to do for endless months of brutal winter. But instead of running to make tea and warm my hands, I walked back outside, thankful to the stars for pressing in and making the big world with even bigger problems feel small and simple—full of nothing but horses and the promise of spring—if only for one night.



After five quiet rejuvenating weeks protected in the solitude of the great north and the Canadian winter, I reluctantly emerged into civilization for a horse expo at Michigan State, where I had the honor of presenting and selling my book on behalf of Joy Beginners School in Kangemi Slums, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.

Friday at the expo was a whirlwind of kids and students, and on Saturday, I was lucky enough to catch up with the blacksmith who grew up in boy scouts with my dad and has been my friend and deeply revered horseshoer for more than half my life. I also got to see my dressage trainer (who is also brave enough to be the zebra’s vet) and my very first horse trainer—who I am proud to say taught me everything—and her kids, who were just babies when I last saw them and now they are in middle school and beyond.

But come Sunday, too many nights in a hotel and the roar and busy commotion of anxious, frenzied horse people had me rather worn out. Someone had walked off with the entire box of birch-tree pencils the kids love to use to write pen pal letters to my students in Kenya, the book had been thrown in my face twice because “there are needy kids right here in Detroit” which somehow makes my cause obsolete and worthy of my book thrown, and two women accused me of charging too much after moving on to the for-profit author next to me and buying those books, which cost the same and have less pages than mine.

My faith in humanity had been expended for the day, and I just wanted to go home, see my horses, and re-think this whole author thing. Because maybe my dad was right. Maybe I should have gone to medical school.

And then, the most wonderful thing happened.

But let me back up first, by fifteen minutes.

There was a little girl who had bought my book with her allowance money that I had overheard her mom say took her three weeks to earn. She was there at the expo as a volunteer with some brownie scout troop she didn’t want to be a part of, and they shoved her in the back bay of the expo and placed her next to a drafty door to re-direct any exhibitors that came in the wrong way. Really, she was just put out of the way. She was too shy to be up front, so they put her in the back where she was in no danger of needing to talk or show assertiveness. She could just sit there and wait for the weekend to be over, fulfill her commitment, and earn a patch she didn’t want. What they didn’t know is how much she loved being back there so near to the horses because one riding lesson a week was never enough time with horses.

I’d seen her eye my books from a distance the day before, but it wasn’t until I had tried to invite her to the coloring table with the other kids, as if she was any other kid, that I realized she wasn’t just any other kid. Before I could correct my mistake, she quickly retreated back to her little chair and sunk into it as deeply as she could, as if I had just suggested she walk outside into the stormy, freezing wind and snow without a jacket. Just from the deep look in her eyes, I realized my severe mistake.

But it was too late. Or so, I thought. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, I’d blown her cover. There were so many screaming kids and their parents demanding attention. I had to get back to them. So that was that.

To my surprise, she reluctantly came back the next afternoon—which was Sunday, the last afternoon of the expo. I thought maybe she just wanted to try coloring again, but she came up to my booth and meekly picked out a book, the cover of which she had already memorized from her careful distance. As she silently handed my mom her crumpled up fist of money and purposely avoided eye contact with me, I felt so compelled to talk to her—encourage her—say to her what I wish someone had said to me—but I was afraid of scaring her away again, so I wrote her a note in her book instead. Because there she was, a reflection of me at eight years old, and at that age, that’s how we speak and listen best—through silence. Through writing. And that’s the way it will be for our entire lives, though she won’t know that about herself for quite some time.

I knew there was one thing, however, that we could talk about.

“Did you see that big Belgian around the corner?” I asked her.

Her demeanor completely changed and her eyes lit up behind the big glasses she normally hides behind.

“Oh, I did!” she exclaimed. “He’s so big. I just can’t believe it.”

“I saw his owner fill up a trash can full of water. Can you believe that’s how much water he drinks?! Did you get to pet him?”

“Oh yes, he’s soft.”

“And gentle, huh?”

“And quiet. I like that.”

“Me, too.” I watched her for a moment as she thumbed through her new book and then turned her head for another look at the Belgian. We could hear him pawing.

She doesn’t fit in. She probably gets bullied. She dresses like the characters she reads over and over in her favorite books, which are books from the 19th century…or earlier. She doesn’t have many friends. Her parents don’t know what to do with her. They think she’s too serious. She can’t tell them what she’s thinking because she hasn’t yet learned how to communicate in a world that seems so loud and aggressive and blunt. She’d find this world ugly and dark if it wasn’t for horses. Horses ease her into the interface of her world and this one. Horses are the only creatures in this world that make any sense to her, and so, she made perfect sense to me.

“He wants out,” she said to me, with a long, frank sigh.

“He’s probably ready to go home. All this commotion wears him out, I’m sure.”

The little girl looked at me in agreement before she fell back inside herself. We both knew how the big Belgian felt—I hadn’t needed to say it—and I knew she had imagined a thousand wildly exciting ways to free him, hop on his back, and gallop (run) far, far away because that’s what I’d dream and write about after coming to expos like these and meeting horses like the Belgian and surrounded by what seemed like drones of unfeeling, uncaring, unobservant people. She looked at me again to say thanks for the book, and then quickly left. She was just as afraid of getting in trouble for leaving a post no one cared about or bothered to check on as she was anxious to be left alone to bask in the warmth of a new book.

The Belgian pawed again and drew my attention back in his direction. The crowd hovering around his stall ooooohhhhhed and ahhhhhhed because they thought he was showing off and being charismatic and I couldn’t take it any longer. I forgot all about the little girl because it irritates me when people don’t understand horses and I had to go do what the Belgian could not. I had to walk. Move. Pace. Roam.

Thankfully, my mom was there with her enthralling sales pitch and a new found love for the credit-card square, and I was free to go for awhile.

I walked up and down the aisles of frantic shoppers. The mindless chatter about garlic supplements, halter charms, and that bind you get into when you find out your horse has inferior bloodlines compared to the horse of the stranger bragging to you was intolerable and suffocating. Of course, not all horse people get caught up in such trifling matters, but a lot of the people that came on Sunday sure did. I wondered what my own paperless, un-registered horses (and rejected zebra) were up to, and I got lost in the loss of being here for people purposes and not horse purposes. Every time I’ve come to something like this, I’ve always had a horse with me. My mind raced with all there was left to do. Sell the book for another few hours. Pack up. Get Gabriel at the hotel. Turn in a paper. Drive home. Home. I was almost home. After 5 weeks, I’d finally be with my horses again. But at this point, another 5 hours felt like 5 endless years.

As I tried to distract myself by browsing the oilskins (I was actually just feeling them and smelling them because they feel and smell like Montana), I overhead a woman who was trying a dressage saddle inform her shopping companion that Judy-so-and-so trains with Rachel-so-and-so, and so, neither of them should talk with either of them from now on because their trainer doesn’t talk to Rachel after a client left their barn to board at her barn. And did it look like this saddle fixed her shoulders? Because Luci-the-grand-prix-clinician says she hunches over and that’s why Sparkles is on the forehand but she thinks it has to be the saddle because her old trainer never said she hunched over and the horse whispering psychic from California told her that Sparkles blames the saddle, too.

That’s show business for you. The horse kind. Not the film kind. Though it seems the two operate similarly, sometimes.

Anyway, the conversation continued, but I couldn’t take it anymore.

Thoroughly worn out and immensely tired, impatient, and upset (which was not exactly justified), I became extremely consumed by my own distraught. The time away from the horses finally caught up with me. I flew around the corner in a blind fury on the way back to my mom, no longer caring if my anger showed and scared everyone away from my booth because then the sooner I could pack up and leave.

But something caught my eye, and I was so captivated, I stopped. Right there in everyone’s way.

There she was, that little girl again, sitting with one leg folded beneath her, while the other was bent upright, with her chin resting heavily on her knee—on that little chair of hers by the drafty door, facing the wall and reading with her back to the fluster of activity. She was reading my book. The bay was growing louder and more crowded by the minute, but there she was…silent. Invisible. Lost. In my book. A cloud of silent, peaceful solitude swirled around her. She smiled as she turned a page, her eyes ready and excitedly searching for the new words to come. And then, for one beautiful magical second, as she absorbed that new page, she laughed. An adorable, innocent, thoroughly delighted eight-year-old laugh. I don’t know what sentence she was on or which character had struck her so. But she laughed. She was no longer stowed away in a corner or trapped like the Belgian in that loud, rowdy bay. Instead, she was free. Free by way of a book. My book.

Tears came to my eyes, and I couldn’t help but smile, too. She was in a world I created. And she was living that fairytale. That farm fairytale. With the same flush of wonder and excitement that I get when I’m there, myself. “Look, Mom!” I whispered. “She’s reading my book!”

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. For the first time, I learned what it is exactly that being a writer really means. I used to think it just meant telling a story or opening up a new way of thinking or looking or understanding for someone else. But it’s not about that at all. Instead, it kind of feels like being a magician. Or what I imagine being a magician feels like. Making something ordinary disappear, and exchanging it for something wonderful. Creating something extraordinary for someone to experience—and to take them someplace entirely new—if only for a little while. I didn’t know moments like seeing that little girl with my book existed. But it’s made every single moment before that one worth it.

But when I smile and think about it now, I am equally flooded with gratitude for all the people who got me through all those moments leading up to that one, and who continue to meet me in the middle…or even farther…when I (sometimes, quite often) get like that little girl who is used to being in the back and on the sidelines, just watching. Belonging in a world that’s someplace else…lost at the farm or in Kenya or somewhere even farther away…with a back facing away and weary of the outside world…easily startled….easily scared off. Sometimes with nothing but horses able to coax her out and help her make sense of things and convince her to try again. Of course, I’ve learned and I’ve grown and I’ve changed a lot since those days, but the old days aren’t always far away. And I’m grateful for the people who wait them out.

Those people are people like my mom. And Cody and Hallie (who just braved emergency surgery like the warrior she is) and Bradley Michael (Michael Bradley) and Jess and Justin and so many others who will never read this, so I’ll tell them in a different way.

I have more people than horses now. It didn’t always used to be like that and that’s a testament to them. Not me.

So, I just wanted to say thanks, guys. For putting up with me and helping me get to where I supposed to be.

You Can’t Go That Way, Eh.


I love Canada, and I know the people, towns, and way of life along the shores of Lake Huron as well as I know the back of my own weathered hand.  Most people don’t find it very inspiring here in the wintertime, and truly, when they hear days like today were -33 degrees, they are justified, even if you’re careful to make the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit.  Truly, it doesn’t make much difference.  It’s cold, either way.  But it’s also beautiful, especially if you know where to look (which is towards the water and into the woods).


But I woke up this morning with the wind howling.  It blew unfailing across the frozen lake, over the ice waves, and smashing hard against the cottage walls.  Gabriel would sleep until noon, if I let him (to be fair, so would I), but I coaxed him outside and even he took a few steps backwards—for the wind pushed him that way—and until he threw his shoulder into it and focused his eyes ahead—which were still adorably droopy with sleep—did he actually make any progress moving forward.


Listening to the wind howl is like listening to two old horses separated from each other, and I couldn’t take it.  I figured that surely the wind had to be far more pleasant inland, and though inland is not my preferred direction, it was today.  Plus, Stratford has bookstores and its comforting to walk those streets knowing some of the best actors in the world walk them, too, if only in the summer for the Shakespeare Festival.


So inland I went, and in quite a hurry, for I had plans to browse all the bookstores AND find some time to write in my favorite little café before it closes at 7.  But as my jeep heaved to and fro across the desolate county roads, blowing snow every way but down, I thought, “you know what, I bet this would instagram beautifully.”


So I pulled over several times, sometimes by accident for the wind was that strong, but usually because there was something wonderful and half hidden in blowing snow to photograph.  An old abandoned house crowded with pine trees.   A lonesome old barn that groaned with each successive gust.  The road in front of me….which I could barely see, even while standing on it.


That’s when it dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t stand in the middle of the road, for it would be just as unlikely that a driver would see me as I would them.  Truly, with the way the snow was going, neither of us would have known what hit us (that’s a terrible pun, I’m aware) and then Gabriel would be an orphan.  I couldn’t feel my forehead or my fingers and I almost lost my phone twice snapping a barn in a particularly strong gust, so it was time to get back into my jeep, anyway.


I continued driving and the visibility continued to deteriorate.  Sometimes, I had to sit at an intersection for several minutes because I couldn’t tell if anyone was coming.  I couldn’t even see what color the stoplight was.  A few times I thought perhaps I should turn back, but I mean…what ADVENTURER says that?  No one.  Plus, I figured if I could handle the roads—and with 4-wheel drive and Backstreet Boys blasting, of course I could handle the roads—surely the rest of Canada could, too.


So I kept driving.


7 kilometers outside of Stratford, I passed an old barn and the world’s most adorable Canadian pony (Napoleon and Ed are the American and English equivalents, accordingly).  I knew I HAD to say hello, and I pulled over immediately, but quickly realized I had parked on train tracks.  In my defense, the tracks, themselves, were covered in snow and the snow drifts had covered up the railway warning signs, so it was an honest mistake, but I would’ve hated to subject the pony to anything violent, so I promptly moved.  Then I went back to visit.


I expected he’d just stand there and eat why I talked to him and told him how cute he was.  Instead, he nickered hello as soon as he saw me.  Friendliness is rather rare in ponies, so it was all I could do not to squeal, jump the fence, and give him a bigggg kiss on his soft, velvet nose and ruffle his thick, rugged forelock.  He turned and watched me for a minute and then tried to forge forward, but the snow was so deep and his legs too stout, so he didn’t make it very far.  He sure did try with all his might, though.  I was afraid he was going to get stuck, and that really scared me, so I did my best to politely discourage him from trying any further.  I’ll take 100 jeeps, trucks, and tractors in a ditch before I’ll have a pony stuck in the snow.


He reluctantly retreated, but remained as close as he could, seemingly happy to have a little company.  I noticed he was beginning to shiver and I wondered what his owners would think if they came back to find him wearing a zebra striped blanket.  I really, really, wanted to blanket him.  But then I remembered I didn’t have a horse blanket in my jeep since I’d been in Canada, and I wondered what kind of person I’d turned into.


Well, finally the pony retreated into the barn (hopefully, to warm up), and I got back into my jeep and drove into Stratford, only to find several semi-trucks and SUVs pulled up along the shoulder on the opposite side because the road was shut down.




I was past the road closure sign, so I couldn’t turn around to slip back through, which had been my immediate impulse. 


“This’ll blow over in an hour,” I thought, “which is just the amount of time I need to quickly browse the bookstores.”


I had planned on spending hours and hours and hours in Stratford, but I did not like the thought of even temporarily being cut off from the way that I had come, and I felt a self-imposed rush to leave as soon as possible.  Never in my life had I ever felt alarmed or trapped or cornered until I got a zebra and learned what captivity and force and trapping looks like to him.   Just knowing the road block was there gave me goosebumps and a clenched jaw.  Sura also flares his nostrils and his veins begin to pop up under his skin.


It’s a terrible feeling.  But there was no point in trying to get out right then.


I tried very hard to concentrate in the bookstores, but I couldn’t.  The day was not going the way I had envisioned, and the cozy, mysterious bookstores I’d imagined were drafty and had too many predictable book club airport novels.  I wanted to ask the store clerks what they’d heard about the weather, but I was afraid to ask, so instead, I asked if they had books on dreams or “Clan of the Cave Bear” or anything by L.M. Montgomery, and they didn’t.


All the other books—and there were so many—looked oddly unfriendly to me.  The ones I’d usually be attracted to—the dusty, forgotten ones in the corners or tucked in next to the floor, I could barely pretend to notice.  I didn’t want to open any of them, admire their covers, feel their pages, and linger between shelves to swallow their scent.


That’s about as uncharacteristic of me as not having a horse blanket in my car.


I had to get out of Stratford.


On the way back to my jeep, I passed a lady who was so bundled up, I could barely see her wild eyes and she was walking like a mummy, with her arms propped well up in front of her from the layers upon layers of clothing and down coats wrapped around her chest.


My stomach turned.  This was not a good sign.


I began to pull out of town, and I thought about getting gas just in case I spent the night in a snowbank, but even 5 minutes seemed like way too much time to spare.  I imagined that getting back to the cottage would be a matter of beating the police with their roadblocks.  Every single car chase movie I’d ever seen flashed before my eyes, so obviously every moment counted and it was shame I didn’t have a pair of aviators to wear.


However, after finding that every major road leading out of town was closed and watching other drivers have meltdowns as they came to the same realization, I decided I’d better get gas and think about whether or not I could handle the proposition of being stuck in Stratford for the night, knowing Gabriel was alone and stuck at the cottage. 


The gas station was total chaos.  People were shouting and honking, and I just shook my head thinking this is why I could never live in a city.  But it was more than that.  This was NOT the Canada I knew.  Instead, the situation was exactly like America, and that was a devastating revelation. 


I had to walk inside to pay for the gas, and I was hoping there would be some wise old Canadian man behind the counter who would be unimpressed by all this drama and simply point to the fastest way out of town.  Instead, there was a girl just a little older than me with blue hair and three cartoon stars tattooed from her neck to her ear, though only two of them were colored in.  I stared at them for a moment, trying to figure out why.


“That’ll be $45.90”


As I handed her my credit card, I said “could you tell me which roads aren’t closed?”


“You’re not getting out tonight, sweetheart, so don’t even think about it.”


This was not what I wanted to hear, but I felt my mind prickle at the thought of a challenge…a dare.


“There has to be a way,” I said gently, and then I hesitated, “…I have a dog.  I have to get home to him tonight.”


I was so aware at how lame that sounded and I felt my cheeks flush, but it was the only excuse I could think of that might justify my desperation.  And determination.


“You’re not the only one, sweetheart.  School buses are still trying to figure out how to get kids home.  How do you think those kids feel sitting at their desks hours and hours after school is out?”


“I was homeschooled, so….”  That’s what I wanted to say because this girl was not answering my question and neither her nor I had anything to do with school buses.




I had just devoured an entire series of TEDtalks on compassion, understanding, and world peace the night before, so I took a step back from the counter to think about this for a moment.  Arguing with her wasn’t going to do any good, but none of the lecturers had said anything about handling compassion when the rest of the world turns on you.


It was then that I spotted a rack of Ontario maps.  I slunk to the back corner of the store and quickly selected the map with the most visible backroads.  As I returned to the counter to pay, I wondered if the girl would pick up on what I was planning to do and take offense.


There was a man ahead of me.  A local.  So he was in no real hurry to move aside and he seemed to relish in everyone else’s frantic displacement.


“It’s gettin’ pretty bad out there, eh?” I heard him say.


“It wasn’t just an hour ago that people were coming in here saying there were dead bodies all over the highway and blood on the snow,” the girl at the counter replied.  Within the close proximity of the store, I saw every single shopper look up from their selection of chips or pop to absorb that image.


“Okay,” I thought, “this isn’t the zombie apocalypse.” 


I set the map down on the counter as the man left disturbingly uplifted by the news of dead bodies and blood on the highways.  He must really love Stratford and Shakespeare…and Noyes.


“I’ll take this one, please.”


“You know, if you’re caught on a closed road, it’s an automatic $300 fine, plus 3 points on your license, and if you get in a crash, insurance won’t pay for it.”


I can’t say I didn’t weigh my options for a second, but defying the law was actually not in my immediate plans, and as the girl finished reciting me my rights, her voice died a bit as she became distracted by the technical difficulty at hand.


“This map won’t scan….why won’t it scan?”


She glanced at the crowd of people 3 yards from the glass doors, half of whom were tromping their way in, seemingly on a mission for coffee.


“You know what?  It’s on me.  Just be safe, eh?”


Compassion.  Maybe it exists after all.


Though, as I headed for my car, a man yelled at me for walking where he was going to turn around, so maybe it doesn’t.


I slammed my jeep door shut and pulled open the map as I watched more and more cars slow down on the streets, completely bewildered, while rolling down their windows to yell at each other for being in the way, even though the right way to be was not clear.  Behind me, a car honked loudly, for I was still parked in front of the gas pump, and he wanted in.


After I moved out of the way, I watched a middle-aged man across the street honk at an old lady as she tried to navigate the slush, with her black leather purse swinging dangerously in the clenched hand she had outstretched for balance.  Apparently, she was taking too long.  Meanwhile, a big SUV pulled out in the middle of the street to purposely block any cars in front of him from allowing cars in the other direction to occasionally duck in and turn around.


I decided I no longer had faith in humanity.


So I dialed my mom knowing it would cost $10 for a minute of international calling, but sometimes, that’s the price you pay for your mom to tell you what to do.


I was shocked to hear her say “Honey, there’s not much I can do” and then we got cut off.




Maybe this WAS the zombie apocalypse.


Just as I was about to burst into tears, my mom called back and said, “Get gas, get a map and take the backroads.  Stop at every single gas station if you have to and ask directions.  Call me if you need me, and I’ll track you online.  Where do I go for that?  Google?”


I knew I liked her.  🙂


So off I went, freshly minted with mom confidence and starting with the direction that looked the least like a blizzard, and seemingly therefore, less likely to where a policeman would have made it with a roadblock.  Canadians, unlike Americans, do get their priorities straight, even in emergencies.


I can’t say it wasn’t a little gut wrenching to drive in the opposite direction of my dog and where I wanted to be, but hey, at least I was driving.  At least I was getting out of town.


Backroads can be such a guessing game, and I made plenty of questionable turns when I saw flashing lights in the distance.  Meanwhile, the wind remained steady and the temperature plummeted.  I wondered if the pony was warm enough, and a little pang of sadness ached behind my eyes because I wished I could have gone back the way I had come, so I could check on him, and perhaps leave the owners a note that read “Please please please sell me your adorable pony.”


I found myself behind a semi for awhile, and after 10 miles across snowy uncharted territory, that empty trailer bed had become an old dependable friend.  Eventually we parted ways, and I was on my own again.  Heading west, I was traveling at about the same rate as the sunset, and for a half hour, I watched as great fluffs of color collided with deep, dark storm clouds, imparting a sense of awe and fear and humility…and the persistent urge to pull over and take a picture (so I did).


Finally, the time came to turn north, and darkness soon fell.  About an hour into the northern trek, a snowy gust let up and I was surprised to see a blurry stream of headlights behind me.  For a second, I was embarrassed and thought perhaps I had been going too slow, but then I realized that those cars were following me.  I began to slow down when I could tell some were having trouble keeping up.


A leader.  So this is what it felt like to be a leader in the thick of chaos and emergency.


I liked it.


One by one, cars began to take alternate various turnoffs as we got closer to the shore. 


Eventually, I was on my own again.


It had been 3 hours since I’d left Stratford, and I only had 15 kilometers to go before reaching the cottage.  The roads were remarkably clear, and I felt my jaw loosen a bit.  I blinked for the first time in perhaps 3 hours.


I pulled up to the cottage and found Gabriel at the door, faithfully waiting for me and completely unaware there had been any trouble.  I texted my mom to tell her I was alive, and she suggested I kiss the map and then leave it inside so we can get it framed.


I kissed Gabriel a thousand times over, searched the cabinets for something to quiet my grumbling stomach, but soon got lost over instagram instead because I just had to see how the pictures of that pony turned out. 


I think they turned out pretty good.